N.C. to buy Grandfather Mountain

North Carolina is buying the nearly 6,000-foot Grandfather Mountain peak and about 2,600 surrounding acres of wilderness, preserving an iconic natural treasure enjoyed by generations.

The $12 million deal also gives the state a conservation easement on the 600-acre park area, popular with visitors for its Mile High Swinging Bridge, nature museum and animal habitat that includes the mountain's beloved bears. The deal, to be announced Monday, is intended to protect the land and its abundant wildlife and vegetation from development.

That was a lifelong mission of the late Hugh Morton, who inherited the mountain in 1952 and transformed the state's distinctive peak into a leading tourist attraction while preserving its wild beauty. The family intends to continue operating the park through a new nonprofit group that could further enhance conservation efforts, his grandson, Crae Morton, said Saturday.

“Grandfather Mountain is protected for good, over and done, period,” said the younger Morton, who is president of Grandfather Mountain Inc. “That's the way it should be. Grandfather Mountain is too significant to have any potential for anyone ever to ruin it.”

Gov. Mike Easley, who enjoyed childhood vacations at the mountain, will join the Morton family Monday morning for the official announcement of the newest state park.

“It's really kind of mind-boggling,” he told the Observer Saturday. “It will all be preserved forever. This is great for the state.”

Grandfather Mountain Inc. owns both tracts, the park and the large “backcountry” wilderness with many trails and popular hiking spots such as the Attic Window Peak and MacRae Peak. The land abuts the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, about 100 miles northwest of Charlotte.

The land is home to dozens of rare and endangered species, regularly attracts scientists to study its ecology and is a globally recognized nature preserve. Park programs include environmental education.

Crae Morton, 36, said the family sought the deal to enhance preservation efforts, not because of business woes. He also was emphatic that the family had not entertained deals from developers.

“No way, never,” he said. “That never was an option, and that never will be an option. There was no pressure in that way.”

His grandfather, a tireless promoter of the park, never exploited it as commercially as he might have and battled the federal government for years to prevent the parkway from slicing across the mountain. His grandson, continuing the tradition, said Saturday: “There's a place for condos and carousels, but Grandfather Mountain is not the place.”

The Morton family is unanimous in its support of the deal, Crae Morton said. They felt it was wise to act now to ensure their wishes for the mountain's preservation will live on. Their desire coincided with the state's interest in land preservation.

“It's an emotional satisfaction to know we're working on something more important and bigger than we are,” said Catherine Morton, the park's marketing director and daughter of Hugh Morton. “He would be very happy to know Grandfather Mountain is going to stay the way it is forever and ever.”

Last year, in a similar deal, the state bought nearly 1,000 acres that included the 315-foot Chimney Rock spire. Like Grandfather Mountain, it had long been privately owned. Soaring land values, which boost property taxes, and sagging visitation were among factors in the family's decision to sell. The $24 million deal took two years of negotiations.

The Grandfather package came together in a few months, and gives the state ownership or control of more than three times as much land as the Chimney Rock deal at half the price. Easley said an appraisal isn't complete but that he has been told the purchase price is well below the value.

“It's the Morton family trying to preserve the integrity of the mountain for future generations,” he said.

Deal details, including the exact boundaries, are still being finalized. But the state will own about 2,600 acres, roughly half in Avery County, more than 700 acres in Watauga County and 350 in Caldwell. Much of that already is under conservation easement, as are hundreds of surrounding acres, a legacy of Hugh Morton.

The state will use money already available in a reserve fund for purchasing park land and other land for preservation. Easley said he doesn't anticipate any legislative objections or other problems with closing a deal that gives the state a plum property.

“If you can get a Grandfather Mountain for $12 million, you'd better get as many as you can,” he said. “That is a deal for the people of the state of North Carolina.”

Easley and wife Mary counted the senior Morton, who died in 2006, as a personal friend. He said a decision has not been made on naming the new state park, but he felt certain it would retain the Grandfather Mountain moniker.

“Whatever it is called, it will be something Hugh Morton would approve,” he said.

The state's new easement on the park area will likely lower the $57,000 Avery County property tax bill because it reduces the land's value by stripping it of development rights. But Crae Morton said that was not a factor in the decision to cede control.

The family plans to transfer ownership of the 600-acre park area to the new nonprofit group it is forming. Adult admission of $14 will remain about the same. That includes access to the hiking trails that will be part of the new state park. The backcountry trails also can be accessed at two other points for a $5 fee. No significant changes are expected.

Morton, who will be the nonprofit group's executive director, is excited about the ability to solicit donations, apply for grants and seek other funding not available to a for-profit business. Those new resources will be used for more preservation and education both in the park and in the area being sold to the state, he said. The group has easement to some trails, which it will maintain, in the new state park.

“Grandfather Mountain is going to be able to fulfill a mission in ways we haven't tried to imagine yet,” he said. “It's just a win-win-win-win for the mountain, the people of North Carolina, for the Mortons, for the visitors to the mountain.”